Five Questions That Still Need Answers

Offseason moves thus far have not addressed every issue as the Titans look ahead to the 2021 NFL season.
Author:
Publish date:

The NFL offseason is like a puzzle.

You start with free agency, which helps general managers construct the borders and completes much of the picture of their respective rosters. Yet there are holes that still need to be filled with the draft and with a subsequent round of free agency moves that comes just before or during the early days of training camp.

That is true even for a team like the Tennessee Titans, which have been one of the biggest spending teams in this year’s free agency.

More than three weeks since the start of the new contract year and fewer than two weeks before the start of the draft, here are five roster questions that remain unanswered for the Titans.

Who is going to be the starter at right tackle? The unexpected release of Dennis Kelly and the trade of Isaiah Wilson, last year’s first-round draft pick, all of last year’s long and short-term plans for the position were undone in a matter of weeks.

Kendall Lamm was added in free agency, and Ty Sambrailo was re-signed. As of now, they are the leading candidates for the job and the safe choices because they are experienced veterans. That could change during the draft if franchise officials attempt to rectify last year’s mistake with Wilson and once again use an early-round selection at that position.

There is also David Quessenberry, who started six games at left tackle last season. Dark horses include Paul Adams and Anthony McKinney. Adams is a Nashville native who was added to the practice squad midway through last season and spent most of 2019 on Washington’s practice squad but has yet to play in the regular season. McKinney was an undrafted rookie in 2020 who opted out of last season due to COVID concerns.

It is a much more complicated picture than it was a year ago.

Can anyone replace Corey Davis’ downfield blocking? Almost any time in recent seasons that questions arose about the wide receiver’s production in the passing game, coaches were quick to point out what a willing and effective participant he was in the run game. Davis’ ability to take on cornerbacks, safeties and even linebackers were an underappreciated aspect of Derrick Henry’s back-to-back rushing titles.

Free agent Josh Reynolds has said he is willing to take on the responsibility of creating running room for Henry, but he will have to prove it on the field.

The good news is that Davis wasn’t the only Titans wide receiver willing to do his part. A.J. Brown was plenty effective in his own right, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, an undrafted rookie in 2020, put his big body (he is 6-foot-2, 211) to use increasingly as the season progressed.

Davis, though, was the tone-setter in that regard, and his absence this fall could create a change in overall attitude among the wide receivers if the coaches are not careful.

Is the quarterback depth good enough? This is a question that has lingered for more than a year now. The good news is that last season provided no answer because starter Ryan Tannehill played all 16 games and was on the field for 98 percent of the offensive snaps.

Once again, Logan Woodside has entered the offseason as the No. 2 guy. In his limited action, he threw the first three passes of his NFL career, and the only one he completed was the first – which was on a fake punt. Two subsequent attempts in the cold and snow during garbage time at Green Bay were incomplete.

The only other quarterback on the roster is Deshone Kizer, who spent the last part of last season on the practice squad. A second-round pick by Cleveland in 2017, he has started 15 games in his career but has as many wins as Woodside – zero. Plus, he has not been on the field in a regular-season game in more than two years.

In terms of bodies, the Titans are set. Given Tannehill’s salary ($24.5 million) and cap hit ($29.5 million), it is unlikely they can spend any more on that position. So, the best thing is for this question to go unanswered once again.

Is the pass defense fixed? Only four teams allowed more completions, only three allowed more passing yards and just six allowed more completions of 20 yards or more than the Titans did in 2020. Clearly changes needed to be made, but the decisions to cut cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoreé Jackson as well as safety Kenny Vaccaro were not made based on the idea of addition by subtraction. They were salary cap moves.

Free-agent cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Kevin Johnson were signed. Third-year safety Amani Hooker is set to replace Vaccaro, and second-year cornerback Kristian Fulton is set to take on a bigger role. It is also highly likely that another cornerback is coming with the first two days of the NFL Draft (Tennessee has four of the top 100 picks).

So, it is not a complete youth movement in the defensive backfield. It’s also not a simple case of getting rid of old players and trying a whole new group back there. It is a combination of the two, and whether those parts can combine with free safety Kevin Byard, the lone returning starter, to make a formidable unit is anybody’s guess at this point.

Who is going to take Jonnu Smith’s place? Tennessee used four tight ends in 2020, Smith, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim. None of them entered the offseason under contract for 2021.

Firkser and Swaim since have been re-signed. Pruitt remains a free agent and Smith is now with New England, courtesy of a sizable free-agent deal.

Firsker has developed into a trusted and productive part of the passing game. Swaim has proven himself as an online blocker who can help make the run game go. Neither features the well-rounded game or athleticism that helped Smith set a franchise record for receptions by a tight end during the Titans era (1999-present) and to tie for third on total touchdowns among all NFL tight ends last season.

There is no one among the remaining free agents who looks like a suitable replacement, which means the answer – if there is one – lies in the draft. Florida’s Kyle Pitts will be gone long before the Titans make their first pick (No. 22 overall) but there are some second-day options led by Boston College’s Hunter Long (a college teammate of Mike Vrabel’s son, Tyler), and it is more likely than not that one will be chosen to try to offset Smith’s departure.